July 29, 2020

One of the many lessons of President Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory is that it’s naive to dismiss the impact of carnival sideshows in American politics. Something that starts as a punchline to supposedly savvy political observers might enter the highest halls of power despite their scoffing. But in 2020, now that Trump is running as an incumbent rather than a brash Washington outsider, some in the US electorate are pushing a fresh fringe movement directly into the mainstream: the Trump-centred cult-like movement QAnon. Fourteen QAnon-promoting congressional candidates have secured a spot on the ballot in November by competing in primary elections. What once started as a few posts promising the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton now has a handful of adherents within striking distance of entering Congress.

For those who haven’t gone down the rabbit hole themselves, the broad QAnon narrative is a classic “new world order” conspiracy theory with an interactive and online twist. In QAnon world, the whole planet is controlled by a cabal of satan-worshipping pedophiles. Many QAnon adherents bizarrely believe that this cabal tortures children to extract a substance known as adrenochrome, which they purport (incorrectly) contains hallucinogenic and anti-aging properties. This cabal supposedly controls everything worth controlling, including politicians, the media, and entertainment.

In QAnon lore, these villains would have continued doing their evil indefinitely were it not for Trump’s 2016 triumph. Trump is believed to be battling this cabal with the help of a group of military intelligence officials known as “Q Team”. The QAnon faithful hold that these military intelligence officials are releasing coded messages about the operation to defeat the cabal on simple messageboards. The posts from the anonymous entity known as “Q” started on the infamous 4chan board, but now Q posts exclusively on 8kun. QAnon followers believe that by decoding these imageboard posts, they can learn the truth of this dramatic, secret war of good vs. evil.

The belief that Trump is cryptographically revealing his secret plan to cleanse the world of evil rapidly made inroads in mainstream American politics. Trump himself has used his Twitter account to boost QAnon, quote tweeting or retweeting QAnon accounts more than 185 times. QAnon followers have appeared at Trump rallies ever since July 2018. After Q told QAnon followers to take the “digital soldier oath”, thousands participated, including the embattled former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn.

However, QAnon has also been connected to domestic extremism. In February 2019, the Phoenix Field Office of the FBI warned that QAnon, and other baseless conspiracy theories, pose an extremist threat. To cite a few examples of how this threat has manifested in the real world: a QAnon follower named Matthew Wright pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge for holding an armed standoff on the Hoover Dam Bridge. In New York, a QAnon follower with a history of attempting “citizen’s arrests” of politicans named Anthony Comello faces a second degree murder charge for the killing of a reputed mob boss.

A suspected QAnon follower named Ryan Jaselskis attempted to set fire to the Washington, D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong, which is often baselessly accused of being a children sex trafficking hub by believers in the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, the major predecessor of QAnon. Recently, in response to increased targeted harassment from QAnon followers, Twitter announced that it would no longer promote QAnon content in its recommendation algorithms or search results.

The insurgent QAnon movement is causing headaches for the Republican Party leadership, who appear to be unwilling to condemn the group for fear of losing much-needed votes, but are also unwilling to give direct credence to a conspiracy theory-driven movement that is loaded with political baggage.

The GOP congressional candidates have varying levels of enthusiasm for QAnon. On the extreme end, Oregon Senate Candidate Jo Rae Perkins gushes about QAnon at every opportunity, sometimes to the consternation of her own campaign staffers. “Where we go one, we go all,” Perkins said in one video, reciting the QAnon slogan. “I stand with President Trump. I stand with Q and the team. Thank you Anons, and thank you patriots. And together, we can save our republic.” In response to the nomination of Perkins, the Oregon Republican Party issued a statement that is devoid of any enthusiasm: “By virtue of being the GOP nominee, this is what we do — support them in winning the general election.”

Other politicians have refused to acknowledge their QAnon-promoting past. For example, Marjorie Taylor Greene, candidate for Georgia’s 14th district, at one point was an active QAnon promoter. In one December 2017 video, she said that “many of the things that [Q] has given clues about and talks about have really proven to be true”. She has since not responded to inquiries about her QAnon beliefs.

Though Trump congratulated her victory, other Republican leaders threw their weight behind Greene’s opponent in the August 11 runoff election — but not because of QAnon. Rather, GOP leaders condemned Greene due to uncovered Facebook live videos comments in which she makes bigoted comments and promotes anti-Semitic tropes. A political action committee affiliated with conservative mega donor Charles Koch has also requested a refund of their donation to Greene’s campaign. Despite all that, Greene is currently the favored candidate to win both the runoff race and the general election.

At least one congressional candidate has distanced herself from QAnon since entering the general election. Lauren Boebert of  Colorado appeared on two QAnon livestream shows while campaigning. During a live streamed interview with QAnon promoter Ann Vandersteel, Boebert said “everything I’ve heard of Q — I hope this is real.” She has since said she doesn’t follow QAnon and called it “fake news”.

While QAnon followers aiming for national offices tend to draw the most attention, QAnon followers are also running for state offices. There are currently 12 known state-level candidates who have endorsed or given credence to the conspiracy theory or promoted QAnon content. One of these, Kevin Bushey, a Republican candidate running for District 151 of the Maine House of Representatives, is even a leader of a Zoom-based QAnon church that reads “Q Drops” — messages posted to image boards — alongside bible verses.

Even setting aside the absurdity of QAnon’s premise and the domestic extremism, the movement itself is nothing but a drain on society. Followers often get so obsessed with the practice of “decoding” Q posts that they alienate their own family and friends. QAnon followers clogged the National Human Trafficking Hotline with bogus tips, making it more difficult for real victims to seek help. They sometimes even take credit for the work of actual investigative journalists.

But as a political movement, QAnon is a stunning success story. What other cause has adherents poised to be elected to Congress just three short years after inception?

It’s reasonable to ask how many of these candidates promote QAnon because they are true believers and how many think they may gain an electoral advantage by promoting QAnon. Candidate Jo Rae Perkins, in reference to her outspoken love of the movement, said in an interview: “It’s a very, highly calculated risk that I’m taking. Most people play it a lot safer than I do. It’s either pure genius or pure insanity. It’s one of the two. The voters are going to have to be the ones that make that decision.” As this is the first election year with a robust crop of QAnon candidates, it is also the first test of QAnon’s electoral viability. 

In November, in addition to learning whether or not President Trump will be elected to another four-year term, the vision of QAnon’s political future will be clearer. There is some historical precedent for a movement fixated on conspiracy theories gaining a significant share of power in American legislative bodies. The first third party in the United States, the Anti-Masonic Party, was dedicated to the proposition that freemasons were running a shadow government and were secretly plotting to control the world. Though the Anti-Masonic Party was short lived, at their peak in 1833 they controlled 10.5% of the House of Representatives

However, the QAnon community has an advantage that the Anti-Masonic Party didn’t: the ability to organise remotely online. Perhaps that won’t be enough to overcome the grudging support of Republican leadership and the stigma associated with a movement that has promoted absurd claims like that JFK Jr. is secretly alive or that there are “mole children” being rescued from Central Park in New York City.

But perhaps the advantage of social media organising will be crucial, allowing QAnon to achieve levels of political power that the Anti-Masons couldn’t. As always, it’s unwise to count out the carnival sideshow, no matter how wacky it appears.